Ten Lessons Learned from a Ten-Year Teacher

teacher: a person who teaches something.  (thank you Captain Obvious aka Merriam-Webster)

teacher: a person who strives to help others reach their full potential while maintaining humility and humor (a personal definition)

Today marks the end of my tenth year as a high school teacher.  Not only do I teach teenagers, but I teach teenagers English.  I have a strong hunch it is the number-one subject area where seasoned teachers like myself (ahem) wish they could transport back in time to their college selves and say “Don’t do it!  For God’s sake, take the kinesiology class instead!  You will make the same amount of money grading essays as you will throwing a dodge ball.  Don’t. Do. It.”

Somewhere, a gym teacher wants to kick my ass right now and, let’s be honest, in that scenario, the pen is not mightier.  That, or they are laughing, saying, “Yup.  Look who actually has the brains.”

All joking aside, I do in fact love teaching English.  This is, of course, easy to say in June.  Ask me the same question come exam time in January when I’m attempting to grade 150+ papers in one weekend, and I may sing a different tune.

But today, I am feeling really good about my profession, which is really a lifestyle, and it is with that optimistic spirit that I share with you 10 “gems” of knowledge I have gleaned from a decade of teaching experience.

Enjoy, and laugh much.

1.  If a student farts loudly in class, point and laugh.

Disclaimer: ONLY point and laugh if the student is already laughing at him/herself, lest be party to bullying, and no one likes a bully.  Assuming the student is already laughing (and naturally the rest of the class), you really have two choices: 1) give the stern, “How dare you disturb my riveting discussion on assonance” or 2) point, laugh, and say, “Brilliant.  You have brought my lesson on ASSonance to a whole new level.”  The point is, if your natural inclination is to laugh at a fart (because really, farts are quite funny), then for goodness sake, do it.  The great irony is they will respect you more for it.

2.  If you need fake muskets for a lesson, get permission first.

In my defense, I did ask permission to use the fencing swords because they could actually inflict some damage.

A little back story: I was directing my first play, so I was a little frazzled, and fake muskets were not on my radar; they were merely on the props list.

Hey, it was my second year of teaching.  Give a girl a break.

And a verbal reprimand.

3. When a student calls you a nasty name, just smile and wave.

This was a tough one for me to learn because when a student gets lippy, my natural inclination is to bounce an expletive right back. Obviously not the best choice as I would inevitably get written up.  Plus, I don’t like to lose and accepting a student’s bait is a sure way to guarantee failure.

Instead, I’ve mastered the art of the smart ass wave and grin.  On the rare occasion a student does get lippy and launches off with a “F*#K this school!”  I merely say, “Bye!” and wave to him brightly as he begrudgingly heads to the office.

Here’s a dirty little secret: students, when you claim we’re out to get you, we deny it profusely, but sometimes, when you’re a real shit to us, we are out to get you, and when we do, it’s awesome.

Oh, and if you’re offended I used the pronoun ‘he,’ I’m simply speaking from experience because I’ve never had such an encounter with a young lady.  I’m probably missing out on some great blog fodder there.

4. Do the Math.

I don’t mean math homework.  Gross.  I mean figure out your own teacher stats.  How far does your influence spread?  When you really think about it,  it starts to make sense that you cannot go on a vacation or the grocery store without bumping into someone you know (or someone who knows you because you met once for five minutes at a parent teacher conference eight years ago, leaving you with only a vague semblance of remembrance).

It also makes you realize why naming your first-born child is a near impossible task.

Just a few of  my teacher stats:*
2,000  – students I’ve taught
10,000 – essays graded
1, 166 – hours spent grading essays
70,000 – minutes spent grading essays (sounds even more impressive, or depressive: not sure which)

*These are conservative estimates.

5.  Applaud yourself, publicly, in your classroom.

Once you’ve done the math, applaud yourself.  Encourage your students to applaud.  It is not uncommon to hear the following monologue in my classroom:

“Wow.  I got these essays done already?  There are thoughtful comments too?  That’s pretty impressive, even…applause-worthy, I’d say.”

Awkward applause by teacher.  A raised eyebrow towards the students.  Tentative applause heard round the room.

“Okay, let’s get back to that discussion on assonance….”

6. Never give up your lunch time.

I know this goes against a lot of teachers’ philosophies.  We’re supposed to be available to our students, 24/7, right?  Maybe, but if I don’t get 20 minutes of adult convo while shoveling my face with last night’s leftovers, I am a grumpy teacher.

7.  When a student tells you his brother has a brain tumor, stop being a teacher and just listen.

We do more than just teach.  That’s why teaching is so hard.  If all we had to do was go through the robotics of teaching content and grading assessments, our jobs would be pretty straight-forward and predictable.

But that doesn’t even scratch the surface. We work with flesh-and-blood people who are either having the best, worst, or most mediocre day of their lives.  If we’ve done an effective job of creating a positive classroom culture, our students may invite us into their lives and share this information with us.  It is both a blessing and a curse.

Sometimes, we have no idea we’ve even made a connection until the quiet boy in class we’ve secretly thought was plotting the world’s demise comes to us out of the blue and says, “I have something I want to tell you.”  Dumbfounded (and extremely intrigued), we say okay, and suddenly hear the sad life story of this quiet young man, the stress he’s feeling because of his brother’s newly discovered brain tumor, and how our ridiculously corny jokes made us seem approachable to this young man.

This is teaching.  It’s raw emotion.  If we’re lucky, we make both an emotional and curricular connection.

8. Become a parent.

I mean no disrespect for the many amazing teachers who are not parents.  I have simply found myself much more empathetic towards my students’ parents now that I have two little rug rats of my own.  Now, when a mom has to excuse herself during a conference while she dabs at her eyes with a Kleenex, I don’t feel awkward and try to change the subject.  Instead, I want to reach over, give her a big ‘ol hug, and say, “I get it.  I really do,” and then start swapping baby photos.

9. When a gorilla, “in the midst” of your lesson, leaps into the classroom, just go with it.

Even if the gorilla smacks his head on the data projector and collapses to the ground.  Don’t panic.  Engage in pleasantries (you’d be surprised how polite a gorilla-suit clad young man can be), then smile and wave (remember lesson #3?).

Disclaimer: no students or gorillas were harmed in the marking of this  amusing anecdote.  The gorilla and I simply shook hands and parted ways.  I haven’t seen that gorilla since.

10.  Indulge in narcissism, minimally once a year.  

I cannot stress this enough: laud your own accomplishments.  If you are a teacher, then you have chosen to put others before yourself.  That is deserving of a little self-recognition.  Especially at the secondary level; we are not inundated with coffee mugs, block jewelry, and “World’s Best Teacher” paraphernalia, so when we do get the handwritten note, the thank you card, the shout-out in a newspaper, we must save them.  The best advice my mentor teacher ten years ago gave me was to designate a special space for saving these simple mementos.  Every June, I take that box out, and I remember why I became a teacher.

Here’s a recent, personal favorite.  This was a line from a student email: “You’re like one of those awesome teachers you see in the movies.”

Can I pick who plays my role?  Because I call dibs on Kate Winslet.  She’s brilliant.


I hope you have laughed sufficiently.  To my fellow teachers, I raise my glass to you.  Here’s to summer!*

*Disclaimer: If you are not a teacher, you may think that when I write the word ‘summer,’ I mean I will spend three months on a beach with a margarita in one hand and a smut novel in the other.  Sounds amazing.  Instead, I will be chasing after my two little boys (one of which is undergoing intense therapy) while preparing for the four preps I’ll be teaching in the fall (two of which will be brand-new for me).  Don’t get me wrong.  There will be moments of beach bliss, but if one more person says, “Hey, at least you get the summers off,” I will throat punch them.

Bunches and Bits {Karina} / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND


~Chaos Contemplated (for now)

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